IVF pioneer Sir Bob Edwards dies, age 87

Robert Edwards, a pioneering fertility scientist whose ground breaking research lead to the success of in-vitro fertilisation, died Wednesday at age 87.

Robert G. EdwardsProf Sir Robert (Bob) Edwards, working with Dr Patrick Steptoe, is credited with the development of in vitro fertilization, or IVF, which resulted in the birth in 1978 of the world’s first ‘test tube baby’, Louise Brown.

Edwards was awarded the Nobel Prize for Medicine in 2010, “for the development of in vitro fertilization”.

European Society for Human Reproduction and Embryology that there are now 5 million IVF babies in the world, and “they each reflect the sacrifices he made to establish IVF as a legitimate treatment in world medicine”.

Celebrating the 30th anniversary of IVF in 2008, the Science Media Centre canvassed New Zealand fertility experts on the success of the technology. You can read their comments and an IVF backgrounder on the SMC site.

Dr Richard Fisher, of Fertility Associates in Auckland, spoke of Bob Edwards on Radio New Zealand. You can listen to the interview below.

Other national coverage includes:

Stuff.co.nz: ‘Test-tube baby’ pioneer Robert Edwards dies  ||  RNZ:  Test-tube baby pioneer Sir Robert Edwards dies
NZ Herald : IVF pioneer Robert Edwards dead at age 87  ||  Newstalk ZB: Test-tube baby pioneer Robert Edwards dies
TVNZ News: British ‘test tube baby’ pioneer Robert Edwards dies

Our colleagues at the UK SMC collected the following expert commentary. Feel free to use these quotes in your reporting. If you would like to contact a New Zealand expert, please contact the SMC (04 499 5476; smc@sciencemediacentre.co.nz).

Professor Joe Leigh Simpson, commenting on behalf of the International Federation of Fertility Societies (New York), said:

“The International Federation of Fertility Societies mourns the death of Nobel Laureate Sir Robert G Edwards, who with Patrick Steptoe produced the world’s first IVF baby and contributed to reproductive biology in numerous other ways. His success in IVF was one of the 20th century’s great medical feats, pursued at long odds and despite great opprobrium. He laid the groundwork for infertile couples worldwide to have children, with 1-4 per cent of all babies in Europe, North America and Australia now born by assisted reproductive technologies started by Professor Edwards. He will be greatly missed”.

Professor Simon Fishel, CARE Fertility, Nottingham, said:

“Bob. A great mentor, friend, and a true pioneer, battling against all – you knew you could change infertility treatment when those all around were against you. Few will ever understand how hard it was to see his vision realised.  The Nobel Prize was a fitting tribute to his work but the millions of children born from IVF are his lasting legacy”

Professor Colin Blakemore, School of Advanced Study, University of London, said:

“I had the privilege of getting to know and admire Bob when I was starting my own career in science. His unbounded and infectious enthusiasm for his research, despite huge technical obstacles and the scepticism of many of his colleagues, was an inspiration.  He was driven not only by confidence in his ability to overcome the technical difficulties but also by his understanding of the distress that infertility can cause. The Nobel Prize was long in coming: thank goodness it wasn’t too late.”

Professor Lisa Jardine, Chair of the HFEA, said:

“It is with great sadness that we have heard about the death of Professor Sir Robert Edwards.

“Many thousands of families have benefited directly from IVF since the birth of Louise Brown in 1978. However, fertility treatment was not always as readily accepted as it is today and had it not been for Bob’s scientific innovation and his passionate commitment to ensuring the technology was made available to all those who needed it, many parents would have been left childless.

“Few scientists can say that their work has impacted on mankind in such a meaningful way. He was an exceptional man whose compassion and tenacity will be dearly missed.”

Dr David Lynn, Director of Policy, Wellcome Trust:

“Few scientists can have contributed so much to the sum of human happiness as Bob Edwards, whose pioneering work with Patrick Steptoe has allowed millions of couples affected by infertility to start families. British science continues to build today on the world leadership in reproductive technology which he established, through research such as Newcastle University’s IVF techniques for preventing transmission of mitochondrial disease.”

Martin Johnson, Professor Of Reproductive Sciences at University of Cambridge, said:

Robert Geoffrey Edwards, or “Bob” as his colleagues and friends knew him, is one of the true giants of the 20th Century. A modest, affable, argumentative and generous Yorkshireman, the farsightedness, energy, determination and rigour he brought to the study of human reproduction led to the most significant advance in the history of infertility treatment, for which in 2010 he received the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine. As well as being an experimentalist and keeping abreast of the scientific literature in such diverse fields as immunology, embryology, genetics and endocrinology, he was also a prolific writer and a pioneering promoter of the public awareness of science and of its role in overcoming infertility and genetic disease, both sources of much human anguish.

“Early and continuing ethical challenges to his work also prompted Bob to think and publish widely about reproductive bioethics – a subject of which he is truly a father figure. Bob also drove the foundation of the European Society for Human Reproduction and Embryology and its journals, which he edited for many years, and then in 2000 he set up a new e-journal, Reproductive BioMedicine Online, with emphasis on rapid publication and the airing of controversies. His almost inexhaustible energy, combined with a passionate belief in humanity, socialism and the commonsense of people, meant he also found time to engage in local politics. Indeed, I am sure that it is a source of gentle pleasure for him that he outlived Margaret Thatcher – born in the same year as him – by 48 hours! ”

Anna Veiga, chairman of ESHRE, said:

“Bob was a tireless and inspirational leader in reproductive medicine, and it’s fair to say that the infertility treatments we have today would not have been developed without his direction. It was also Bob who laid down the statutes which govern ESHRE’s organisation and define its constitution today. We will remember him for many reasons, but mostly for his sympathetic ear, his constant encouragement and of course his remarkable achievements in human biology. Without Bob’s scientific foresight and care for the infertile couple, the treatments of assisted reproduction would never have gained the universal acceptance they have today.”

Sarah Norcross, Director, Progress Educational Trust, said

‘We were greatly saddened to hear of Professor Sir Robert Edwards’ death, and yet glad that he lived to see his work receive long overdue recognition, in the form of his 2010 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. Bob Edwards made an outstanding contribution to assisted conception, working with Dr Patrick Steptoe and Jean Purdy to pioneer IVF techniques which resulted in the birth of Louise Brown and led to more than five million IVF babies being born worldwide. Those who owe the existence of their children or indeed were born thanks to IVF will mourn Bob’s passing.’

Professor Peter Braude, Emeritus Professor of Obstetrics and Gynaecology Kings College London, said:

“Few biologists have so positively and practically impacted on humankind. Bob’s boundless energy, his innovative ideas, and his resilience despite the relentless criticism by naysayers, changed the lives of millions of ordinary people who now rejoice in the gift of their own child. He leaves the world a much better place.”